One of the most frustrating things about travelling in Latin America

There are several things in Latin America that try your patience if you let them – people who take one look at you and push in line in front of you because they assume you don’t speak the language, waiting for who-know-how-long when the chicken bus you are on stops for who-knows-what reason (there is never an explanation), people writing cheques at the supermarket checkout (yes, some countries still do this!)

Over the years, I’ve learned to relax and chill out when these things happen – after all, the pace of life in many of these countries (at least outside of the major cities) is very different to that in Australia, and most of the time I’m not really in any great hurry anyway.

But the one thing that really frustrates me is withdrawing money from an ATM.  The process itself is really no different to withdrawing money from an ATM in Australia and it all goes well nine times out of ten (though there are some ATMs that don’t take Mastercard, only VISA or Cirrus/Maestro).  You can even choose whether you want to have instructions in English or Spanish.

The problem is: they always spit out ridiculously large notes that you simply cannot use in an everyday scenario.

Ridiculously large denominations ATMs give out

For example – here I have 1000 Córdobas (~AUD$50) that includes 200 and 500  Córdoba notes (you can probably get away with the 100 Córdoba note). Given that a can of coke costs 7 Córdobas, and to pay 200 Córdobas for an everyday item means its a pretty expensive purchase … breaking the 200, let alone the 500 is not necessarily an easy thing to do – especially if you are travelling alone (and therefore buying for 1) and are on the road at the equivalent of a truck-stop or in a non-touristy town!

The only hope is to:

  1. buy something that is relatively expensive or stock up on enough junkfood so that the large note is accepted 🙂   Problem is that you probably have better things to do with the money…
  2. buy some stuff in a supermarket so they can break your big notes into smaller ones
  3. ask a bank to change them into smaller notes (I’ve done this more than once – withdrawn the money outside, then walked in and joined the queue in the bank)
  4. approach a money-changer (who usually changes money from $USD to local currency) and ask for help

The slight problem is that the town I’m in for these first 2 months:

  1. doesn’t have a supermarket, only pulperias (kind of like corner shops)
  2. doesn’t have a bank
  3. doesn’t have money-changers

All of these things are a 20-30 minute microbus trip (10 Córdobas) away (more on microbuses in a future post).

OK, granted, I’m in a very small and (apart from students studying spanish) not very touristy place, but still… it presents challenges.

You learn very quickly as you start to travel around Latin America that you guard your small change with your life, even though every person you buy something from will ask you if you “have something smaller” to pay with.   Don’t feel sorry for them and get suckered in!   At least not unless you, and they, are absolutely desperate.   They are also guarding their small change with their lives 🙂


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